- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - The final crew of the space shuttle Endeavour returned home Thursday to Houston, where they thanked colleagues and reunited with families. But Mark Kelly had to wait just a bit longer for his special reunion.

The Endeavour commander delayed his planned rendezvous with his wife, wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, until later Thursday evening. He and the rest of the crew first spoke to a cheering crowd of hundreds of co-workers, family members and fans welcoming them back to Texas.

Giffords didn’t attend the public event Thursday afternoon at Houston’s Ellington Field, so Kelly headed to see her afterward in her Houston rehabilitation center.

It was an emotional curtain call for the next-to-last shuttle flight, with the tired crew of six providing extended autograph time for the crowd.

While the crew singled out individual workers and departments at Johnson Space Center, they emphasized the sacrifices of their loved ones, most of whom they haven’t seen since May 15 _ the day before Endeavour launched.

“I want to thank my family _ Gabby who is not here today _ Claudia and Claire who are here in the front row,” Kelly said, referring to his wife and daughters. “I could not do it without their support.”

Endeavour astronaut Drew Feustel added a special note to his wife, Indira: “Honey, happy anniversary today.”

And the astronauts also praised the ship that will no longer be flying. After 19 years and 25 flights, “Endeavour performed as if it was brand new,” Kelly said.

“It’s not the end of Endeavour either,” Kelly said. He said Endeavour will continue to inspire young people to study science and engineering at its new post at a Los Angeles museum.

And future spaceships will learn from the space shuttle fleet, which is retiring after the scheduled July 8 launch of Atlantis, said Endeavour astronaut Roberto Vittori.

Endeavour landed early Wednesday morning in Cape Canaveral to end a 16-day mission to the International Space Station. Kelly called Giffords almost daily via telephone, and had one video hookup during the mission, said Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin.

Giffords, who was shot in the head during a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz. in January, left rehab in Houston to be at Endeavour’s May launch.

Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats, a former astronaut, praised Kelly for the way he compartmentalizes family and NASA duties, like most astronauts: “He’s probably had a bigger challenge than most. He did a terrific job.”

___

Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle